Let me introduce to you the rebel of American home styles – the Victorian. When it hit the scene, it swept the nation. Unconventional, artistic, and never seen before on American soil, the Victorian style turned American home construction upside down in the mid to late 19th century.
People of the Victorian era looked back romantically on European medieval times and the Italian Renaissance. Part of this came from trying to reach back to what they thought was a more pure society in touch with nature. They wanted to recreate the rolling, peaceful European countryside in or on the fringe of gritty, dangerous cities.
More efficient technology during the Industrial Revolution made the architectural features of the medieval and Italian Renaissance structures inexpensive. People with a vast range of incomes could afford Victorian decorative home features. Rich or poor, you could build your own little European villa here in America.
There are several subsets of Victorian era; these three are some of the most common you’ll see.
The Italianate home style migrated from England to the U.S. during the 1840s. Parents wanted safe, clean places to raise children rather than disease-ridden industrial cities. People dreamed of places like the Italian countryside and decided to build their houses to look like the villas they imagined.
The Italianate style gained popularity all over the U.S. in the mid 1800s, thanks to the publication of architecture books. Furthermore, the industrial era provided access to mass-produced, manufactured goods that made it easier to build homes. The Ladies Library in Ypsilanti, Michigan, is a great example of an Italianate-style building.
- Cube shaped
- Symmetrically placed, narrow windows
- Low-pitched roof
- Decorative entry way covered by a porch or overhang
- Long, overhanging eaves
- Decorative brackets underneath the eaves for support
- Small cupola (short, tower-type structure) centered on top of the roof
Gothic Revival homes mimic Gothic churches and buildings found throughout Europe and built in medieval times. European Gothic structures are intense-looking buildings with pointed arches reaching to the sky and gargoyles watching over you.
Tall and foreboding, Gothic structures have an eerie, and at times scary, presence about them. Gothic Revival homes aren’t as intense as medieval Gothic structures, but you can see the relationship between the two.
Again, the Industrial Revolution played a heavy hand in making Gothic Revival homes popular. These homes are mostly built of wood, and new steam-powered saws cut wood more efficiently and cheaply. Also the development of a steam-powered scroll saw made decorative vergeboard easier and more inexpensive to make. Vergeboard became known in colloquial terms as gingerbread, and people often refer to Victorian-style homes as “gingerbread houses.”
- Asymmetrical footprint
- Decorative vergeboard along the roofline
- Steeply pitched roofs
- Lots of pointed arches
- Many decorative features to highlight eaves, roofs, roof lines, porches, windows and doorways
- Stained glass windows
Queen Anne Style
When most people think of Victorian homes, Queen Anne style is probably what they think of. Excessively decorative, large floor plans, and a castle-like corner tower are the most popular features of this style home. Cherry-picking elements from previous Victorian and architectural styles, Queen Anne homes mash up many styles.
What I love about the Queen Anne style is that it allowed an architect to truly turn a home into a piece of art. Most builders went crazy with decorative features. Builders used a variety of colored shingles, clapboard, bricks and paints to create patterns and designs. Brick and wood, and layers of vergeboard covering the exterior offered different textures and visual complexity.
The popularity of Queen Anne homes was short-lived in the realm of American architectural history – the era lasting a little more than 20 years. These once beautiful, intricately designed homes were soon deemed to be gaudy eyesores. Carson Mansion in California is noted as the epitome of Queen Anne style homes.
- Round towers or turrets at the corner of the house
- Tons of decorative elements like multiple balustrades, shingle patterns, paint colors, etc.
- Shingled roof designs
- Asymmetrical footprint
- Asymmetrical placement of windows and doors
- Steeply pitched roof
To me, if you’ve seen one Colonial or Classically inspired home, you’ve seen them all. Victorian style homes definitely break that somewhat mundane mold. Dramatic and dynamic features make them, in my opinion, some of the most interesting architectural styles out there.
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